Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
by Harold Brodkey
Knopf/Vintage, 596 pp., $12.95 (paper)
It is more than a year since Stories in an Almost Classical Mode was published, and the various expressions of dissatisfaction, unease, and enthusiasm that greeted it have since abated. Harold Brodkey’s book of short stories, just published in paperback, can now begin to stand apart from the expectations and posturings that have always seemed to accompany the author and word of his work, for in the career he has mapped out for himself, in the discussion his work has inspired, in the gossip that has accompanied the wait for this, his second commercially published book in thirty years, Brodkey’s personality has seemed inextricably linked to the reception of his work.
Brodkey’s reputation was established with First Love and Other Sorrows, a collection of stories that appeared in 1958 when he was twenty-eight. In the decades since, a number of stories appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New American Review and aroused comment on the “promise” of this American writer. Anticipation also grew with news of a novel begun nearly thirty years ago that has been under contract at three publishing houses. So famous had the prospective novel become that when a draft was delivered to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1976, its arrival was announced in The New York Times. After being repeatedly listed in publisher’s catalogs, the novel still did not appear; it was then announced that it would be published not by Farrar, Straus, but by Knopf.
Meanwhile, admiring comments from those who had read parts of the novel have alternated with vituperation against its author (he has called those he thinks oppose him “a cordon of enemies”). Harold Bloom has called him “an American Proust,…unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner”; and Denis Donoghue, who has read part of the novel, said, “It’s a work of genius. There is no one writing in American literature at all comparable.” Brodkey himself has claimed, “It’s dangerous to be as good a writer as I.” Of long delays in completing his novel he told the Washington Post:
If some of the people who talk to me are right, well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from St. Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play.
The novel has not appeared—although there have been reports that 3,000 to 6,000 pages of text exist, being worked over and over. In its stead we have the volume of stories under review, all of them written since the first collection, and chronologically presented, beginning with a 1963 story from The New Yorker, and ending with a sequence of connected stories, one of which appeared in The New Yorker just over a year ago. Many of the stories come from drafts of the novel …